This is mostly my personal reflections on current events. I hope my thoughts inspire you to speak up respectfully about what you believe, with an open heart to listen to others who have different ideas from you. We are in the middle of a giant, dangerous racial conversation. It is not time to be silent. Neither is it time to be violent.

I feel like Rip Van Winkle. Remember him?  The guy who fell asleep for 20 years and missed the American Revolution. Until recently I lived with my family for 18 years within 15 blocks of some of the worst violence in Minneapolis that happened at the end of May 2020. It seems to have woken up and disturbed the whole world. Including me.

Back then I regularly biked past 38th and Chicago where George Floyd was killed. Hundreds of times I drove past the 3rd Precinct police station and the many other buildings on Lake Street that were damaged and looted.

I have been on a semi-conscious path related to my own racial biases since living in a poor neighborhood just outside of Nairobi, Kenya in the late 80s as part of my theological training. That was a huge wake up in my life as a young, advantaged, white-skinned man from the USA.  I was one of a handful of Caucasian Americans living among 80,000 black Kenyans crammed into a lively and sometimes dangerous place called Dandora. To feel like a minority on a bus or in the market was a startling, embarrassing and at times scary experience. It was strange and also interesting to watch the children touching the hair on my arms, out of curiosity and calling me, “Muzungu! Muzungu!” (white person).

I know that being one of a few white Americans in a congested area of Nairobi, Kenya for 19 months is different than being dark-skinned anywhere in America. Except maybe for the one time there was widespread rioting and some anti-American sentiment because of some unhappy international news, and I was nearly killed by a roving mob of drunken rioters. Still living in Africa got me thinking about a lot of things related to this concept called race, and the way we think about and treat each other based on color of skin.

I returned from Kenya, got ordained and began serving in three different parishes in South Bend, Indiana in the shadow of the University of Notre Dame. The cross-cultural reentry was painful and I spent a lot of time thinking about my privileges and questioning the strong U.S. focus on acquiring things. I enjoyed working with people of different cultures and living in a neighbor with mixed races. I made it part of my work to pay attention to African American culture. I was attuned to the suffering caused by people of lighter skin against those of darker skin. And I was passionate about narrowing the chasm between rich and poor. It was obvious to me that this chasm, and it’s racial structure, was one of the main causes of so much violence and human suffering in our country. I wanted to use my influence for the common good.

I imagined going back to Africa and had dreams of making a significant impact on people living in poverty. I imagined being a missionary priest—part Robin Hood, part Gandhi, with a little bit of Nelson Mandela thrown in. It was an utter fantasy.

I never made it as a missionary priest. I ended up leaving the priesthood, getting married and starting a family. And now, 30 years later—largely because of the death of George Floyd—as well as the video of Amy Cooper, and other deaths of black men at the hands of police, as well as a powerful article by a Jesuit priest named Bryan Massingale, I recognize that something numbing happened along the way and I’ve been largely asleep to the suffering of people with darker skin pigment.

Had I been lulled to sleep by my unconscious advantages*? Have I turned my back on those with browner skin without realizing it? I think I have. And it is particularly painful because I have training that could have allowed me to make a larger impact, during those years, both in my cross-cultural education in preparation for priesthood, and my work studying and practicing conflict resolution.

It seems the calling now, for me, is to listen to all perspectives, especially people who are poor and brown-skinned. And to talk with my middle-class white friends and colleagues, and find the middle ground. I have a friend who has a “Blue Lives Matter” sign in his yard. I have friends with “Black Lives Matter” signs. I want to hear and understand a variety of perspectives.

Though I have lived in neighborhoods where a high percentage of people of color below the poverty line lived I am mostly unaware of what it is like to be a person of color, or a person living in poverty, anywhere in America. And this lack of awareness seems to have increased with my annual income.

I am also unaware of what it is like to be a cop working an inner-city neighborhood, with a higher rate of violent crime that other places. What it feels like to stop a car at 2 a.m. that has been speeding, worried that you could be shot as you approach that car.

If you are a white cop in a neighborhood with a high percentage of people who are black, you are now being intensely watched by all. I’m concerned about our police force.

This is also professionally complex for me, because I work mainly with Caucasians in the construction industry. Some of them do not believe in systemic racism, and some of them do. Some who do not believe in the systemic dimensions of race are vocal about their beliefs.

My main concern is that this death of George Floyd and the expensive rioting that followed will widen the ideological chasm between those who believe that we have systemic racism in our country and those who do not. As that chasm widens, we may be less likely to respect different perspectives and less likely to work together to solve our deepest societal and business problems. And things will likely get more violent, for everyone. I’d like to see the chasm narrow and a sense of community grow.

So I am doubling down on the task of understanding perspectives that are different from mine. I want to know what Candice Owens means when she said that she does not subscribe to the “victim narrative” about blacks (note: this video will be disturbing to most people). I am not a fan of victim narratives either, and I know that we’ve unintentionally created some unhelpful dependencies in trying to help people who are poor. I want to know why some African Americans (about 8%) support Donald Trump.

I believe we have a problem with systemic racism in our county. Could you say that Mr. Floyd’s death had nothing to do with race? That it could have been a black cop choking a white man? Sure. But it wasn’t. And so often it isn’t.

Yet, how can some say that what so many people of color experience, subtle and not so subtle bias against them, is not real? Or can be overcome by personal responsibility alone–not committing crime, staying married and working hard at school? The social structures impact personal choices. The game has been, and still is, rigged in so many ways.

And yes, some older white men might say “Yeah, the game is rigged now ….against white men, especially older white men”. There is a lot of truth to that right now, but for how many hundreds of years has the game been violently-rigged the other way?

Yes, there are some rare African Americans (usually very smart, articulate, bold, often lighter-skinned and physically attractive people, like Candance Owens) who can overcome racial biases and appear unaffected by it. But she is an exception. Not the norm.

If a person does not see systemic racism in policing, they are labeled by the left as being in denial. If this is you, you may not feel free to post your views on social media. You were going against the current before George Floyd, now you are going against a tsunami.

If a person sees systemic racism in policing, and elsewhere, they have a lot of media support, and a plenty of police tolerance, to proclaim their message of justice. The world is listening now in a new way. From some perspectives listening too well. Almost all the white, male late-night talk show hosts have addressing this issue, from a point of view sympathetic to people of darker skin color.

Perhaps you do not see any unusual injustice in what some white police have done to people of color. I don’t know all the facts behind the situation. I am sure you can find some statistics to prove that there is no bias among white cops. But I think you’d have to work very hard to achieve that.

We all tend to stereotype people who we either don’t know. And when you toss power, guns, violence and choke holds into the mix, it is a powder keg of trouble.

It’s been a long sleep. In Rip Van Winkle like fashion I’m waking and attempting to integrate what I have experienced years ago, into what is happening now. I want to fully own and properly use the advantages I have for the common good. I want to understand you who may not believe in systemic racism. Or are claiming that there is reverse racism. If you believe in reverse racism, please watch this comedy video (less than 3 min) and be in touch. I’d like to know your thoughts.

If you do believe in systemic racism, be aware that many who don’t are on edge right now. They are more afraid than ever. They are quickly losing a lot of status. And many of them are armed. I pray that you maintain a spirit of tolerance and a high level of personal responsibility, on the large stage you have been given at this point in history.

We have to find a way to work through our divisions, let’s not our fear and anger destroy lives and property, if we are going to rebuild our precious and exceptional country.

*“unconscious advantages” is a term coined by Anthony Signorelli to refer to what many call “privilege” or “white privilege”

About Tom Esch

Tom Esch works with health care companies, counties, cities, construction companies, business analysts, attorneys, executives, owners, managers and non-profit executives to grow interpersonal awareness and foster effective communication.